Rutgers Students Dedicate Spring Break to Protecting Wetlands

Rutgers Students Dedicate Spring Break to Protecting Wetlands

A group of students from Rutgers University-New Brunswick dedicated their spring break to make a difference in New Orleans with the continuing response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina – an event that happened at a time they were too young to remember.

While this wasn’t an average spring break spent relaxing and recharging before the intense last weeks of the semester, the students found themselves in one of the most meaningful experiences of their lives. They planted over 4,000 grass plugs across four miles of coastline along the Gulf of Mexico, one of many activities to help with the continuing environmental conservation and natural disaster relief.

The seven-day trip was one of eight student-planned and led service-learning projects this March, and one of 18 trips over the course of the year, sponsored by Rutgers University Alternative Breaks

Students awaiting planting instructions for the shoreline at Elmer's Island, Lousiana.

Students await planting instructions for the shoreline at Elmer's Island, Louisiana (Photo:Larry McAllister II)


“We drove from New Orleans to Elmer’s Island, a beach that is not open to the public anymore and serves as a bird sanctuary,” explained co-site leader Gianna Midure, a junior studying supply chain management and psychology.

The grass plugs, once rooted, would help protect the coastline from additional erosion and prevent sediment deposits containing fertilizers and other contaminants from reaching bird habitats.

“We worked from early in the morning until dinnertime, so we actually got to see all of the progress we made,” said Midure. “It was really nice for our trip’s participants to see a visible representation of the service they were doing, it was like, ‘wow, we did that.’”

First-year student Roja Vanaparthi plants a grass plug

First-year student Roja Vanaparthi plants a grass plug (Photo:Larry McAllister II)


Midure and her co-site leader, Tyler Dey, a sophomore studying animal science in the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, planned the trip in response to their curiosity and desire to learn more about the lasting damage from the history-making hurricane.

The students participated in daily information sessions facilitated by their community partner, Common Ground Relief, an organization formed in September 2005 to provide disaster relief and service activities following Hurricane Katrina. The students learned about the human and ecological impact of the devastating storm, as well as the man-made influences which continue to threaten the area’s wetlands – a vital part of both Louisiana’s ecosystem and economy – that are being lost at an alarming rate.

“We chose this trip because it is something that I wasn’t really familiar with, whereas Tyler might have more experience with it,” Midure said. “I thought that this would be a good opportunity for me to learn as well.”

Site leaders Gianna Midure and Tyler Dey

Site leaders Gianna Midure and Tyler Dey


Midure and Dey saw their different personalities and majors as beneficial in working together and ensuring that the trip was a valuable learning experience for the students involved.

“When we are interviewed for the site leader position for alternative breaks, the program tried to get a good snapshot of who we are, our strengths and weaknesses,” Dey explained. “We were assigned partners based on what the leadership team thinks who we would work best with based on those strengths and weaknesses.”

In addition to the grass planting, the students helped plant and care for cypress and yaupon trees, two species heavily affected by Hurricane Katrina, at Bayou Savauge, a national wildlife refuge maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Students trudge through mud to find a suitable location to plant cypress trees at Bayou Savauge

Students trudge through mud to find a suitable location to plant cypress trees at Bayou Savauge (Photo:Larry McAllister II)


“If you had told me, ‘hey, we’re going to be stomping around in knee-high mud, planting trees alongside a bunch of spiders and snakes,’ I probably wouldn’t have done it, but it was actually the most enjoyable part of the experience,” Dey said.

The group also spoke with biologists at the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. For Eva Tillett, a junior studying ecology, evolution and natural resources at the Rutgers School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, this experience was especially meaningful.

“This trip was really helpful for me, it allowed me to have a more personal connection to what I’m studying,” said Tillett, who wants to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “I got to see exactly what the work was like, and what technology and information I need to focus on when I’m in my classes."

Site leader Gianna Midure helps Eva Tillett plant a cypress tree

Site leader Gianna Midure helps Eva Tillett plant a cypress tree (Photo:Larry McAllister II)


For Dey, hearing stories like that proved their experience leading the trip was worthwhile.

“Seeing how much students learned throughout the day and having people say, ‘I’m going to be able to tell people about this issue,’ I think that’s a very big mark of success to me,’’ Dey said.